“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Liberty for Legerdemain: How We Pave the Way for Our Own Parasitization with Naive Notions of Personal Responsibility

The Supreme Court has decided that no limit will be placed on the amount corporations can spend on campaign messages, making it possible for the exponential expansion of the already staggering propensity for money to control the message in American political discourse. Should corporations really be granted the same rights as individuals? That seems perfectly at odds with what the Founders intended when they codified such rights as the one to free speech. The argument for why this decision shouldn't scare the hell out of us is that we have to rely on individuals to be able to discern fact from propaganda. We've seen this argument before. Whenever regulations are suggested for the food industry, for example, the response is usually that people should be allowed to decide for themselves how healthy they want to eat.

No matter what corporate chicanery we discuss, from hidden credit fees and retroactive variable rates, to back-loaded mortgages, to cell phone companies using long automated voice menus to trick people into wasting minutes, to fast food poison, the libertarian response to proposed fixes is that any legislation will limit freedom and discourage citizens from exercising their personal responsibility. Morgan Spurlock, in his documentary Supersize Me, poses a question that exposes the naivety of that line of thinking. If fast food chains are really so concerned with providing responsible people with greater freedom of choice, why do so many of them have playgrounds attached to them? Maybe you want to claim in these cases that parents should be the responsible ones, but this line of reasoning assumes the very generational disadvantages conservatives want so badly to discount.

Part of the reason libertarians are so apt to play up the virtue of personal responsibility is that they want to take personal responsibility for their own successes--or if they haven't been successful yet they want to believe there are no limits to what they can achieve. But how we decide to behave depends on processes that occur in our brains, and therefore to argue there's no limit to personal responsibility is to suggest that our minds come equipped with infinite resources. It should be obvious to anyone who's ever struggled and failed to pay attention--to a child, to a spouse, to a teacher, to a book, to a show, etc--that cognitive resources are in fact quite limited. If you're not convinced on this point, try performing the simple task of storing in your short-term memory ten or more digits.

Wait, though, could I possibly be entertaining the notion that memory capacity is somehow related to capacity for making sound decisions?

It so happens that researchers at the University of Iowa have come up with a clever way of testing the limits of our good sense. In an article published in The Journal of Consumer Research in 1999, Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin describe their experiment on the effects of straining cognitive resources on impulse control. The experimenters gave participants a choice between a healthy snack, a fruit salad, and an unhealthy one, a piece of chocolate cake. But before being given this option half of the participants was given a two-digit number to remember, while the other half was give a seven-digit number.
What they found supports the idea that exercising personal responsibility is just that--an exercise, and it relies on the same store of cognitive capacity we rely on to remember things like phone numbers. The group asked to remember seven digits chose cake over fruit much more often than the two-digit group. This trend was even more pronounced when the experiment was repeated with individuals with impulse-control problems.
One implication is that people with more on their minds will have more trouble doing the responsible thing. Is it any wonder then that it is predominantly poorer people who suffer from obesity and its consequences? But even if you are one of those self-reliant types who bristles at the idea that we need a government agency to protect us from the depredations of the food industry, even if you happen to be really bright and proud of it, you simply can't pay attention to all the sectors in today's society in which you could be swindled. So you're wise to the credit card and mortgage scams--are you sure your mechanic isn't working you over? You're way too smart to feed your kids french fries every meal--but do you know how prevalent E. coli bacteria are in our (extremely consolidated) food processing channels?
I'm pretty sure I'm completely oblivious to several dangers I'm routinely exposed to by dint of being at the mercy of the hierarchical industrial society which keeps the decision-makers completely isolated from the human consequences of their decisions--all so they have more cognitive resources to devote to the bottom line. I'm also pretty sure that the billionaire executives are laughing their asses off at the irony that it's precisely those who believe in the omnipotence of their free will who are the easiest to manipulate.
Sad as it is to say, the more money you're free to spend, the more people you'll be able to convince, regardless of whether or not your message is true.

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